Sunday, June 18, 2006

This Program Was Brought to You By Lung Cancer

WHERE WERE YOU WHEN you first learned that The Flintstones used to be sponsored by Winston cigarettes? In the middle of Fred's get-rich-quick schemes and Wilma's concomitant exasperation over same, viewers during the show's initial airing could watch various Bedrock residents extol the virtues of Winstons. Fred even sang the Winston jingle to help hammer it into the viewer's mind. Naturally, with the ban on TV cigarette advertising and the move of The Flintstones into kiddie-rerun timeslots across the country, my generation of cartoon viewers never knew what sort of an earner Fred and Barney were for the tobacco industry. So when I eventually found out about this old campaign, it was not unlike watching the Easter Bunny shill for crack.

Naturally, those in my cohort remember how widespread print and billboard ads for smokes were even after the TV ban consigned the tapdancing packs of Old Gold and stop-action, square-dancing Luckies to the dark dungeons of the Internets. For our parents, however, especially when they were still kids, cig ads were ubiquitous. It was just another product. And even if sneaking reports linking emphysema and lung cancer to smoking were beginning to lead manufacturers to claim their products were "easier on the throat" or "endorsed by doctors," they also recruited actors and sports figures to stump for their "favorite" cigarettes.

Thanks to the robed acolytes tending the helium-cooled vaults at The Internet Archive, this era of freewheeling death-dealing has been preserved for latter-day eyes not reddened by a roomful of smoke. Let's take a look at one such example of a brand's ads, in this case, Camels. Yes, a manly, unfiltered smoke that hits the lungs like a carcinogenic brick. Would you walk a mile for a Camel? Or just collapse, gasping, after 40 yards? Let's ask the following satchel of whores pitchfolks. Note that the audio cuts out and then desynchronizes after we move into the sports figures' ads, so my identification of the various wheezing luminaries is handicapped by my gaping ignorance of long-gone baseballers. That said, I give you the following filmstrip of Camel clips, rendered — like a chest X-ray — in glorious black and white.

(Have the A/V kid open a new browser window here, give him a wedgie, then view the first commercial. Pause it and come on back when it's over for my observations; there are many of them. Commercials and observations. Oh, you know what I mean!)

Who better to endorse the mildness of a cigarette than an opera singer? Marguerite Piazza, a featured vocalist on Sid Caesar's pioneering Your Show of Shows, takes some time from the tomfoolery to warble about their "rich flavor" and a "mildness that agrees with [her] throat." You'll hear a lot about cigarettes' flavor in the upcoming pieces. Do individual brands really taste differently? As someone who has only ever smoked one or two cigars in a good year, I merely assumed that all cigarettes tasted like they smelled, except perhaps for menthol ones, which I always assumed were steeped in vats with those Christmas tree auto de-stinkers.

IMDB lists Piazza as still alive, though the Jungle Room details a late-life battle with aggressive facial skin cancer. Hmmmmmm.

Next up, "Mister Versatility," Buddy Rogers, whose many talents are caricatured in hydrocephilac cartoons before we speak to him, "backstage," butt in hand, about his undying (har) loyalty to Camel cigarettes. "I like a cigarette that agrees with my throat," he intones, as a monolithic pack of Camels, cigs arrayed like titan organ pipes, is shown arising from the Arctic Circle, like a tobacco-based palace for Santa Claus. The viewer is exhorted to try Camels for 30 days (I can hear the zero coughing from the smoldering Camel), and then — if this month of mainlining unfiltered nicotine isn't enough to sink the hook in — is introduced to a siren I've come to call "Tina T-Zone." Undetected for millennia by medical luminaries from Galen to Leonard McCoy, the T-Zone serves the role of "telling you how mild and good-tasting Camels are." This sexy shorthair blows an inviting plume of smoke that all but has a cartoon hand at the end gesturing the viewer in for a better look at her T, if not her A.

I do admit, though, that I am a sucker for the practical stop-motion special effects used at the end of the ad.

"What cigarette do you smoke, Doctor?" You only have to walk outside a hospital these days to be reminded of how many otherwise responsible, learned medical professionals smoke. But it's still shocking to see print or, worse, TV ads in which people representing the medical profession are extolling the virtues of any cigarette, to say nothing of a single brand. Charming images of physicians in an operating theater, or walking toward their Godfather–looking sedans with the traditional black bag for a housecall, are blown away by the sight of some Kildare lighting up in his fucking office! Imagine going in for a sitdown with your doc and having him fire up a smoke while telling you to lose weight. Any doctors who actually earned money representing or defending the tobacco industry for these ads should get the same treatment the Syndicate did in The X-Files, just get dry-gulched in an abandoned hangar by a ring of flamethrower-wielding cancer victims.

The next two ads feature baseball players. The message here is that if a strapping 6-foot-2 war hero or a star pitcher can play a whole game and still suck down a nail or ten afterwards, so can Mister and Missus Cold War. Why, these players have even stopped chewing tobacco! These aren't the 1870s! Only Stalin spits on floors! Wake up to the smoke that rules the world: Camel!

We're back to Hollywood for the next shill, actor and singer Dick Haymes, who spontaneously vents to a hapless D-girl about his busy schedule. While this five-time divorcee and drunk is griping about the scarce free time his records, movies, and other sources of alimony dough are leaving him, he whips out — from a pocket of possibly the ugliest vest in human history — a pack of Camels. He, too, is followed by the exhortation to take the 30-Day Camel Challenge, and a reappearance of toothsome smoke-kitten Tina T-Zone.

(Fun fact: Dick died of lung cancer in 1980. Hmmmmmmm.)

Would television reruns be complete without an appearance by a Gabor sister? Hell no! What does Eva Gabor do after hamming it up in a chintzy costume drama? Flunkies flock in to whisk away her tiara, proffer a sheaf of smokes, and light 'er up. Heaven forfend Mrs. Green Acres has to spend an erg digging out her own pack of Camels. I guarantee you, those billions of Camels the ads keep claiming are being smoked — these guys are digging them out of a rolled-up shirt sleeve or a plaid flannel pocket, and they could lay out the crewcutted pencilneck who fires one up for Eva with one shot.

"Led'z go zomevere vhere ve gan be gomvtable," she beckons, as she changes into a bustier and eases onto a fainting couch in the only funeral home in America with a full-length mirror. Like the others, she blathers about how easy Camels are on her throat. Then it's back to the Dirty 30 taking a drag on a Camel, and Tina T-Zone giving you the nicotine eye.

Marguerite Piazza is back for more after Eva's husky parting plea to try Camels. Unlike Gabor, Piazza actually does her own work around the place, indulging in a little ikebana before lighting up. Behavioralist psychology at work: Complete a household task, smoke a butt. Unlike those bonbons, ladies, Camels will keep you thin, as thin as an opera singer, so when the time comes, you can just slip right into that iron lung. And once again, Tina T-Zone blows you a toxic hello. (Conveniently, after the "pack after pack, week after week" adds up to "decade after decade," the T-Zone also indicates the tissue an oncologist will eventually excise.)

We now arrive at the prestigious Camel Autograph series, a parade of addicted actors pressed into service for their drug of choice. A nighttime skyline transforms, as it might in a tobacco executive's acid trip, into a balustrade of cigarettes, and the Pack of Destiny rotates to reveal . . . Robert Young. That's right, the future Marcus goddamned Welby, MD and Father Knows Best title patriarch. Unlike our other smoky Joes and Josies, Bob can't be troubled to pitch in person for his longtime favorite smoke, letting an 8 x 10" glossy and a catchy jingle do his work. Despite playing a doctor on TV, respiratory failure would eventually call him to the big ER in the sky. (Hmmmmmmm.)

Richard Carlson is the next on the block, attending the screening of one of his many workmanlike productions before the awe-inspiring totem of a tumescent pack of Camels. Smoking in a movie theater. If you did that today, even mid-film cellphone users would help beat you to death.

Scrumpy smoke sorceress Tina T-Zone exhales her lethal love at the end of this one, too. Did you know that some folks sexually fetishize cigarette smoking, and that some websites actually sell access to videos of actresses langourously blowing smoke? It is entirely possible that some lone pervert uses a loop of Tina T-Zone as his, erm, "finishing move."

People, the collection of clips goes on like this. I will leave it to you to explore the remainder and learn for yourselves the degree to which Hollywood and the dukes of sport lent their names out to the merchants of death. Of the remaining pieces, these highlights stand out:
  • Guys packing cartons of Camels in their luggage before a trip (where are they going in 1940s America that doesn't sell cigarettes? Christian Science meeting?).
  • A sport fisherman revealing his lunchbox to be about half full of Camel packs. It's the fifth food group!
  • Someone who is so goddamn addicted to smokes that he has a whole CARTON of butts in his car's glovebox.
  • A guy dropping another whole carton of Camels in a picnic basket! Is he visiting his wife in jail?
  • Another opera singer announcing, "Once a Camel smoker, always a Camel smoker." That would look great on a headstone.
Is it any wonder that my parents were both hooked in their teens??

Thirty years from now, the sort of aggressive cinema smoking shown in films like Casino and Fight Club will seem as taboo as the Flintsones ads do today. I don't possess any moralistic prognosticative powers, and certainly, even at just one or two cigars a year, I'm not immune from the title of hypocrite. Still, with state after state outlawing indoor smoking, and with cigarette advertising in the retreat, one might envision a future in which those few remaining addicts, sheltered together for support in Las Vegas or an Indian casino, unlit butts drooping from their lips, dig frantically through their pockets for a Zippo or a book of matches to get their fix.

If it's Snagglepuss who finally hooks them up with a flame, I don't want to know.

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